If Evolution were a fact, what of God?...

Is Evolution Opposed to Christianity?

"My Father worketh even until now, and I work." - John 5:17.

"The earth beareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear." - Mark 4:28.

The "Theory of Evolution" is a theory. It is not a fact, but it may contain insights into how the physical world operates.
"Science does not, so far as we know, produce theories which are true or even highly probable. Although rare, it sometimes happens that a theory exactly predicts an experimental outcome. When that desirable result is achieved, there is cause for general rejoicing. It is far more common for the predictions deduced from a theory to come close to reproducing the data which constitute a specific problem, but with no exact coincidence of results. Empirical problems are frequently solved because, for problem solving purposes, we do not require an exact, but only an approximate, resemblance between theoretical results and experimental ones."
Larry Laudan, Progress and its Problems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977, pp. 23, 224

Ernest Fremont Tittle: Please let me say at the outset that my purpose is not controversial. I am not out to attack anybody. I am not even out to convert anybody. If there is any person present who has made up his mind that he cannot believe in evolution, or that he ought not to believe in it, or that in any case he will not believe in it, I have not the slightest desire to convince him that he is wrong.

It is not written, "Except a man become persuaded of the truth of evolution, he shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Many of the greatest saints of the centuries have lived and died without even so much as a glimpse of those thrilling vistas which open before the eyes of the evolutionist. And, I have no doubt that during many years to come, persons who could be described as the salt of the earth will live and die with no more understanding of what is meant by evolution than was possessed by St. Francis of Assisi or St. Paul.

I am bound to confess that whenever I meet a saint - someone who seems to incarnate the spirit of Christ - I do not wait to ascertain whether he believes in evolution or in any other scientific theory; I at once thank God and take courage. I have, therefore, no desire to persuade anybody to believe in evolution who does not want to be persuaded, or in whose mind the question of evolution has never been raised.

But I am conscious of the fact that there are many persons in whose minds the question of evolution has been seriously raised. No boy or girl today can go to a first-class high school, not to mention a first-class college, without being introduced to at least some of the data on which belief in evolution is based. I am very sure, therefore, that there is no high school student who does not feel at least some interest in the question which we are proposing to discuss. And I am almost equally sure that there is no parent of a high school student who is not concerned with the question, What is the bearing of the conception of evolution upon religious faith?

Slowly, but surely the conviction is gaining ground that the "fact" of evolution will have to be accepted. There are no less than six theories of evolution [in 1925, and many more now!], of the way in which the thousands upon thousands of different plant and animal species have been evolved. And it may be that no single one of these theories can finally be accepted. It may be that although each of them contains some valuable suggestion, none of them tells the whole story. But even though every theory of evolution that has yet been advanced may prove to be inadequate, the "fact" of evolution is likely to remain undisturbed.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the delicious and irrepressible Topsy blandly announces that she never had any parents, she just grew. But we are now in a position to affirm that there is nothing in all the world that never had any parents. Everything that is came from something that was.

There was not, for instance, a certain Monday when there was, in all the universe, no single sun or moon or shining star, and then a following Tuesday when lo, a sun shone, and a moon gave forth its light, and the heavens were studded with stars. There was not a certain Tuesday when there was, on all the earth, no single tree or flower or blade of grass, and then a following Wednesday when gigantic redwoods lifted their branches three hundred feet into the air, and alpine lilies appeared on every mountainside, and grass grew in every valley. There was not a certain Wednesday when there was, in all the seas, no living creature, and then a following Thursday when the waters swarmed with fishes. There was not a certain Thursday when there was, on any continent, no single lion or tiger or woolly rhinoceros, and then a following Friday when animals of every description roamed the forests and appeared upon the plains. There was not a certain Friday when there was, in all the world, no single human being, and then a following Saturday when a full-grown man appeared. Everything that is came from something that was. Everything that was came from something that was before that, and before that, and before that. No man or mountain, no lion or lichen, no fish or flower was ever created outright. Everything has evolved, higher forms of life from lower forms of life, and these lower forms from other forms lower still.

That is the belief of increasing numbers of men who have devoted a lifetime to study of the evidence. And so, the conviction grows that however little we may yet know about the method of evolution, the origin of species, the "fact" of evolution will have to be reckoned with by intelligent persons.

What is the bearing of this "fact" upon religious faith? I shall venture to suggest not only that a man may believe in evolution and still believe in God, but that a convinced evolutionist may find in the conception of evolution a positive support for his religious faith.

I

It would, of course, be utterly absurd to claim that Jesus was an evolutionist. Our Lord was no more an evolutionist than he was a republican. He was neither a scientist nor a politician. He was not even a theologian. He was a great mystic, the greatest of all mystics, who saw farther into the heart of reality than any other son of man has ever seen, and in whom, Christians believe, the heart of reality was completely revealed.

But although Jesus was not an evolutionist, there are two sayings of his which, in the light of the evolutionary hypothesis, become almost startlingly meaningful. In the fourth gospel, he is reported to have said, "My Father worketh even until now, and I work." And in the gospel of Mark he is reported to have said, "The earth beareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear."

A man who believes in evolution may say, My Father worketh even until now. Not in spite of the fact, but by reason of the fact that he has come to believe in evolution, he may think of his heavenly Father as having been continually at work in the world, causing the inorganic to become organic; causing the organic to advance from amoeba to man; causing man himself to advance from those brutish ancestors of ours who first stood erect and developed hands, to those saints immortal in whom the ape and the tiger died.

And the man who believes in evolution, as he tries to visualize the process by which his heavenly Father has been working in the world, may repeat with extraordinary appreciation those other words: "First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear." No man or bit of moss, no crescent moon or bit of crystal, no plant or bit of protoplasm was ever created outright; but, "First the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear." It is not the saying of an evolutionist. But it is a saying which the convinced evolutionist may make use of as he attempts to visualize the way in which his heavenly Father has been working through the ages.

II

Nothing could be farther from the truth than the suggestion that "evolution is an invention whereby it is hoped to get rid of God." For, in the first place, it is not the object of science either to prove or to disprove the existence of God. The object of science is far humbler than that. It is merely to study phenomena; to observe the relation of one fact to another, and to describe as accurately and fully as possible the laws which govern this relationship.

But when it comes to the greatest of all questions - what lies back of phenomena? - science, as such, has nothing to say. In this greatest of all questions, the scientist as a man may be profoundly interested. But merely as a scientist, he feels obliged to confess that it lies beyond the reach of any instrument which he knows how to employ. He pushes his investigations of phenomena farther and farther back. He divides the atom into its constituents. He speaks of electrons and protons. At this present moment, his mind is fascinated by the thought that electrons and protons may be but the varying manifestations of a single ultimate medium through which an invisible, all-pervading energy works. But when he has pushed his investigation to the very end of the scientific trail, he is just as certainly in the presence of the last Great Mystery as is any savage who has never looked through a microscope, or any child who has never experimented with a test tube.

Moreover, the suggestion that "evolution is an invention whereby it is hoped to get rid of God" is in direct conflict with the undeniable fact that the great majority of evolutionists have believed, and do now believe in God. In one of the last letters he wrote, Darwin himself declared, "I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God."

Rendel Harris tells us that from his dear friend, Frances Power Cobbe, he learned a great lesson, namely, that "we must not cease to believe that God did anything because we have found out the way in which he did it." If only all of us could learn that lesson, how very much mental pain would be spared us! Have you ever seen a magician draw a rabbit out of a hat? When he first showed you the hat, there was nothing in it but the hat-band. And yet, the very next moment, out of that undeniably empty hat there came an undeniable rabbit. Marvelous! Miraculous! But suppose some day you should be alert enough - I never have been - to discover how he drew that cunning rabbit out of that ordinary hat. You might cease then to regard the operation as marvelous, miraculous.

But would you cease to believe that he had actually performed it? Please do not press my parable too hard. The suggestion is not that the Almighty God is a glorified magician who delights to play tricks on us, but only that, when science unravels one after another the mysteries of life, and we begin to understand how God does certain things, it does not follow that we must cease to believe that he actually does them.

The time, I am afraid, is not yet past when religious people try to pin their faith in God on their ignorance rather than on their knowledge. What is the origin of life? We do not know; so at that point there is really some need to believe in God. What is the origin of self-consciousness in man? We do not fully know; so at that point, too, there is really some need to believe in God. But it now seems almost certain that science will be able, some day, to trace the development of self-consciousness, aye, the development of life itself from inorganic elements. And persons who think of God only in connection with that which is not yet fully understood cannot but view with dread the approach of that day.

How different the case of men and women who have really learned with Rendel Harris the great lesson that we must not cease to believe that God did anything because we have found out the way in which he did it. As yet the marvelous story of evolution has been only partially told. Only a relatively small portion of it has been published to the world. But almost every year now at least a few new chapters are added. And if it shall ever come to pass that men may read how life merged from inorganic matter, and how, step after step, it developed from a jellylike amoeba to the greatest saints of the centuries, then, with an even greater wonder, an even deeper reverence, some future generation may stand uncovered in the presence of the great "I am" and say, "How wonderful, O Lord, are all thy works."

III

Nor is there any ground for the fear that evolution would blot out the image of God in the soul of man.

At this point we need to guard ourselves against the silly mistake of judging the fruit of the tree by the root of the tree. Someone advances the theory that the idea of immortality was born of dreams in which the dreamer wandered far afield from the place where his body lay, and so conceived the idea that there is a kind of happy hunting ground to which the spirit goes after death. Now I, for my part, do not know whether the idea of immortality originated in this fashion. But suppose it did. Ought I to conclude that because it did, I today can no longer entertain it - overlooking the fact that modern belief in immortality rests on far different grounds?

However the thought of life after death came into the world, it has managed to remain in the world. It has managed to justify itself to some of the greatest minds of the race. It has proved an ever fruitful source of inspiration for noble living. And it is written, "By their fruits (not by their roots) ye shall know them." Not by the way an idea comes into the world, but by the way in which it works in the world, must its validity and nobility be judged.

So, also, in the case of man himself. Some one advances the theory that man has emerged from lower forms of life. Darwin declared that he bears about in his body the stigmata of his lowly origin. Walt Whitman declared that he is "stuccoed all over with quadrupeds." Some one else has called attention to the presence, in modern man, of more than fifty bodily relics which are of no conceivable use to him in his present state, but which were of use to him at various stages of his upward climb - the vermiform appendix, for instance, and the muscles with which some of us are able to move our ears!

But when you have acknowledged that man had a lowly origin, must you come to the conclusion that he is altogether of the earth, earthy? How can you come to that conclusion in the presence of the prophets and poets and saints and seers of the centuries? When a man like Phillips Brooks appears, whatever may lie back of him in a past unimaginably remote, you know that he bears, in his spirit, the image of God.

From the point of view of the evolutionist, in reply to the question,

"What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?"

we may still answer:

"Thou hast made him but little lower than God and crownest him with glory and honor."

Ask any evolutionist, What of man's origin?, and he will reply that man's origin was lowly enough. Ask the great majority of evolutionists, What of man's destiny?, and they will reply, "Now is he the son of God, and it does not yet appear what he shall be, but there is at least a reasonable hope that some day he will become one with the eternal Father of his spirit."

IV

But someone may say, If evolution be true, what becomes of the Bible? Well, there is a very pleasing tradition that when Galileo was charged with teachings concerning the heavenly bodies that were contrary to the teachings of the Bible, one of his defenders remarked, "The Bible was given to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." Is not that another great lesson which some of us need to learn? The Bible was given to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. It was written by men who were concerned to say that God is, and that he is able to do for tempted, troubled human spirits far more abundantly than they ask or think. It was not written by men who were trying to produce a scientific thesis that would procure for them a coveted Ph.D. degree.

"In the beginning," writes the author of the opening chapter of Genesis, "God created the heavens and the earth." Then he goes on to tell the marvelous story of creation in accordance with the fullest knowledge and the deepest insight which he possessed. He had never looked through a microscope. He had never looked through a telescope. He had never experimented with a test tube. He lived in a pre-scientific age.

Suppose he were living now. Suppose he were able to avail himself of all the scientific apparatus which the centuries have produced, and of all the scientific information which the centuries have accumulated. Would he not tell the story differently? I, for one, believe that he would. But even though he told the story somewhat differently, would he not still say, "In the beginning, God?" And was not that, after all, the one thing which he was supremely concerned to say?

In the second chapter, another writer is trying to tell the same wonderful story. "And Jehovah God " he writes, "formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." He, too, lived in a pre-scientific age. Suppose he were living now. Would he still write, "Jehovah God created man out of the dust of the ground"? Almost certainly, no. But would he still write, "Jehovah God created man"? Without a doubt, yes. And was not that, after all, the one thing that he was supremely concerned to say?

For what, then, shall we go to the Bible? For scientific information which its writers simply could not possess, living as they did in a pre-scientific age? Or for that stimulus to religious faith and that inspiration for noble living which leap from page to page of those glorious scriptures, in which many generations of questing spirits poured forth the deepest convictions of their hearts, and revealed an unparalleled insight into the heart of reality?

In the light of evolution, what becomes of the Bible? Why, the Bible becomes, or rather remains, the greatest literary source in all the world of spiritual vision and moral power!

V

Let me now try to suggest a few ways in which the conception of evolution becomes a positive support for religious faith.

It provides us, for one thing, with a nobler conception of God. Think, first of all, of a God who dwells for unimaginable aeons in a kind of splendid isolation - a God without a world. One day, about four thousand years ago, he decided to create a world and did create one, in one hundred and forty-four hours, after which he rested twenty-four hours. Then, from his elevated position above the world, he began to direct the world's affairs, interfering from time to time with its orderly processes in order to work a "miracle." A somewhat capricious God; a God, moreover, who, being thought of as dwelling "up there," could only with extreme difficulty be thought of as present everywhere.

With this conception of God, compare the conception made possible by the discovery of evolution. God has never dwelt in isolation. He has always created. The very necessity of his being has obliged him to create. Nor does God dwell somewhere above the world. He is as certainly in the world as a man is in his body - and as certainly more than the world as a man is more than his body. He is, therefore, not far away from any one of us; in him, quite literally, we live and move and have our being. And yet, he is more than we ourselves - more, far more, than the sum total of our humanity.

And in what do we become aware of his existence? In occasional interferences with the laws of nature? No! In the universal order of the world; in the beauty and mystery of life; in the discovery of truth and the achievement of goodness; in the long, costly, sublime advance from mud to man, from savagery to civilization; above all, in Jesus.

Is not this latter a far greater conception of God?

And does not the thought of evolution give us a most helpful standpoint from which to view the evil of the world? It enables us, for one thing, to look at our world, not in the perspective of a few thousand years, but in the perspective of millions of years.

On the supposition that God turned out a world complete in one hundred and forty-four hours, we cannot but wonder why it has taken him so long to perfect this world. But on the supposition that literally millions of years were required for this once molten planet to become sufficiently cool to make possible life; that other millions of years were required to provide an environment that would make possible human life; that hundreds of thousands of additional years were required to bring human life up to a point where a written history of it was possible - on that supposition, can we not view with greater patience the manifold imperfections that yet remain? Can we not, indeed, enter at least a little way into the marvelous patience of God?

And, observing the truly astonishing progress that has been made since the first man turned his face from the clod, can we not dare to hope that the inspiring visions of prophets and poets will yet be realized in the years that are to be? "That is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural."

First nature; then, at long last, human nature; then, in the fullness of time, the nature of Christ. Out of nature came human nature. Out of human nature came the character of Christ. Is not the character of Christ a revelation of the meaning of life, and a prophecy of its eventual achievement?

Just at this point the evolutionary conception comes to the support of that most daring of all the dreams of man - the dream of a world beyond this world in which progress may still go on; the dream of life after death, aye, of life in the midst of death, or life triumphant over death.

It was none other than Darwin himself who declared, "It is an intolerable thought that man and all sentient beings are doomed to annihilation after such long continued and slow process." The evolutionist believes that the whole universe has labored to produce man: a creature endowed with memory, so that he is able to survey the past; endowed also with imagination, with creative intelligence, so that he is able to map out and, in some degree, to determine the future; a creature of so rich and wonderful a nature that three score years and ten are far too short a time to enable him to satisfy his love of truth, his love of beauty, his love of love; a creature whose body links him to lower orders of creation, but whose spirit transcends all that is of the earth, earthy and enables him to commune with God.

And now, asks the evolutionist, what will the universe do with its finest product? Cast him as rubbish to the void? What an outcome that of the travail of a universe! What an anti-climax that of the whole world process! What a gigantic failure that of the Power which hitherto has so directed the course of evolution that, in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, a veritable son of God has appeared!

What will the universe do with a man? It is an evolutionist who says, "Just as man's body has nearly reached the goal of its terrestrial development, so his spirit may just be commencing a corresponding career that will continue hereafter."

VI

Why, then, should anyone contemplate the "fact" of evolution with alarm? Far from banishing or even belittling God, it but adds to his glory. Far from degrading or even diminishing man, it but reveals his uniqueness, his imperishable significance. Far from destroying religion, it fortifies it. And what a mighty stimulus it brings to the most daring hopes of mankind. The hope that though a man die, yet shall he live - how it kindles that! The hope that the dreams of prophetic spirits will yet be realized in a diviner civilization, the kingdom of God - how it lights up that!

Sermon preached by Ernest Fremont Tittle, Evanston, Illinois, 1925


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